Tuesday 13 December 2022

Hypothetically, a zero-hours contract, it is

Benched and unsubstituted

He reads with a wry smile the many congratulations that greet the announcement of being engaged in a new role beneath which is a story generally untold of process and procedure that confers invisibility and humiliation on the subject affected.

In a similar engagement just 5 years before, an associate role gave contract terms of 100% billing for client assignments and where there were no assignments you were benched at 50% of your daily contract rate. It placed the onus on the organisation to ensure that he spent as less time as possible on the bench, for they had to find him billable work to do.

That bench rate disappeared from associate roles after a year, and then responsibilities shifted in radically consequential ways. Now, he could be on contract but without a client assignment and hence, nothing to bill; effectively there is no income.

It was not working for him

Without rewriting the general terms of engagement, the apparent flexibility and fluidity the new construct brings would be ideal if he did not have to revisit the employment market, it is however exceedingly precarious, there was a period that engagements fell from 90% utilisation to 55% utilisation year-on-year that it was prudent to exit that arrangement.

They decided to reignite the associate relationship recently where the matter of full engagement was discussed at length and assurances were given that projects abound for him to rotate other full-time employees out of roles for longer stretches of time. These were convincing enough to lay trust in the prospect, there was work on offer.

After a presentation and discussion that constituted an interview, a contract engagement was offered as he was assigned to a manager who was yet to begin in his role. The scheduled start date of two weeks time was moved back a week because onboarding processes were ahead of the organisational line of management.

More snags and frustration

Then the proposed assignments with clients could not be taken up because they were of a security-sensitive nature for which enhanced vetting was required and the agency that should have immediately transferred the security status would only offer to share it and that would take months to conclude, even as the term of its validity was running out. This was besides the fact that there was no contracted activity with a sister executive agency he was assigned to for over 4 months already.

Now, having confirmed that the assignee had the necessary clearances even if not in possession of the new sponsor, this should have sufficed, but it took a barrage of pleading emails to engage that thought process and by then, the opportunities being considered for had slipped away.

Zero hours with style

Whilst a valid contract without client assignment seems to break you out of a stretch of unemployment, the critical element of earning an income is lost in the circumstances such that even the agency that facilitated the contract has abandoned the contractor in frustration and resignation.

The many times I have read about ‘zero-hours contracts’ I thought it was redolent of gig-economy stints, piecework, or on-call job roles where you were engaged but not guaranteed any work, along with other strictures that engender such contracts. You never consider this can apply to technical and specialist roles that pay well on an assignment, but nothing at all when not assigned to a client.

Some may suggest, you are at liberty to find other work and return to this associate role when available, it seems an ideal quite different from experience. The only apparent change to the situation is he does not have to undergo the interview and onboarding process anymore, he has everything to be assigned an immediate role, but until then, he is on the most sophisticated castle-in-the-sky highly remunerated zero-hours contract.

Each hour he is still scanning the job boards to send his CV and a cover letter still applying for a role in mid-December. It is going to be a cold lonely Christmas with little to cheer about if nothing changes soon. Bills due, rent due, what a sordid tale, it is. 

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